The phrase ‘the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture’ is sometimes used by Mormons to discredit some idea as a false doctrine, even if the idea has some scriptural support. It almost always has a strong negative connotation associated with it. I imagine that people who have a background and interest in philosophy wish that this phrase, and the usual usage of it, would just go away. I do not believe it is likely to go anywhere, and since one place this phrase is used is a narrative that is sacred to Mormons – it may be a warning to be taken seriously.
I think it is important to keep in mind that a central and unique claim of Mormonism is that of modern, ongoing revelation. This revelation takes the general form (through prophets and apostles for example,) and the specific (through individuals). Thus the preferred alternative to ‘the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture’, is divine revelation.
Yet the revelations themselves suggest that we must study things out in our own minds prior to asking if they are right (D&C 9). We are also told that God will not command in all things (D&C 58). Meditation and pondering about the gospel are common exhortations that members of the church are given. For mankind to be free and moral agents, they must not only be able to act freely and independently, they must also be able to think freely and independently. Otherwise agency makes little sense. Yet, anyone who believes in personal revelation, must accept the possibility that God might influence and inspire someone’s thinking on a subject.
Thus the ‘philosophies of men, mingled with scripture’ might be the results of meditating and pondering gospel principles (even in an inspired way), and communicating the results in a persuasive and long-suffering way, using the scriptures to show the consistency of the thought, appealing to a common and authoritative source. But then again, it may not be any of this.
Ultimately, I believe it comes down to the content of what is being communicated. I believe that dismissing the religious claims and thoughts of others as being ‘the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture’ is an easy, and lazy way out. Thought combined with scripture is not necessarily dangerous.
The philosopher William James gave some criteria that I feel most Mormons would embrace (and probably already do) for evaluating the religious experiences and claims of others in his ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ chapter 2. His criteria are:
- How did hearing the claim or experience make you feel?
- What are the fruits?
- Does it make sense?
Such criteria have been used by missionaries for years when discussing the ‘first vision’ of Joseph Smith for example. Such criteria were likely used when we gained a ‘testimony’ of some religious truth ourselves.
Dismissing false doctrines and ideas is an important thing to do. When we do this, it should be for the right reasons – the feelings of the spirit, the fruits of the spirit, reasonableness, and not with the all-to-easy label of ‘philosophies of men, mingled with scripture’.